Monday, March 22, 2021

 

From the Sub Basement of the Archives: A Giant Leap Backward to the Bad Old Days

 Ken Kling's Joe and Asbestos was the premier American horse-racing tip strip, running almost a half a century (with a few hiatuses). It started as a syndicated strip in 1923, then eventually settled in at the New York Mirror and when that paper folded, the New York Daily News, where it lasted until 1968. 

Asbestos, the second banana of the strip, was a black character drawn in the typical minstrel-show blackface style of the 1920s. This was the standard depiction of cartoon black characters in those days. In the 1940s, though, that imagery finally started losing traction on the comics page. Some black characters were redesigned in a more racially sensitive style, but most, to be perfectly frank, just disappeared. My guess is that many cartoonists were so used to the minstrel depiction and the mushmouth argot that nearly always went along with it, that they had no clue how to make a funny black character without resorting to those stereotypes. 

Given that Asbestos was a co-star of his strip, Ken Kling stuck with the character. I know that in the 1940s Asbestos continued to be drawn in the original way. Unfortunately I don't have any samples of the strip in my collection from the 1950s, but I have enough circumstantial evidence to say that the minstrel look made it well into that decade, maybe all the way through.

What I do know is that by 1963, when the Mirror folded and the Daily News took on the strip, Asbestos had finally been transformed into a normal looking character. How he made it so long in blackface amazes me, especially in a progressive city like New York, but never underestimate the force of inertia. 

Kling kept the strip running in the Daily News until June 1968, when he was well into his seventies, but then he became ill and the strip faded away without so much as a farewell. Kling passed away in 1969.

Despite Ken Kling going to his reward, the late race track tout somehow managed to sell Joe and Asbestos to a new paper in town. The name of that paper was the New York Mirror. Wait, huh? I just said the Mirror folded. So the name is worth a short digression. When the original Hearst-owned New York Mirror went belly up in 1963, the New York Daily News had purchsed the trademark to the name of their arch-rival paper to assure no one could use it. Apparently, though, they failed to renew the trademark at some point and the name became fair game. So when a new prospective publisher came to town wanting to publish a slightly sleazy tabloid (which is what the Mirror was) he gleefully took the trademark. End of digression.

It is safe to say that Ken Kling probably didn't have all that much to do with the strip by the 1960s. It certainly doesn't look like his artwork. So my guess is that the 1960s ghost is who offered the strip to the new Mirror. The Mirror already had a pullout race track sheet, so they liked the idea. So sometime in 1971 the strip came back from the dead, still bylined and signed by the very much dead Ken Kling. 

So I had to tell you all that as background. The real point of this post is this: I recently found in my giant 'to be filed' piles a short stack of New York Mirrors from July 1971. Checking out the issues, I came across something pretty darn unsettling. My first issue is Saturday July 10 and here is the Joe and Asbestos strip they ran that day:


As you can see, Asbestos is featured in his normal post-minstrel version; the version that had been used for at the very least almost a decade. Now here is the strip of Monday, July 12:

"What's the idea?" is right, lady! Starting on this day, Asbestos has taken a giant leap backward to the bad old days.Not only is he wearing the 'blackface' makeup, he's also using the mushmouth dialect of yore. And this isn't just a strange one-day trip to the bizarro world, this was the new (old) look of Asbestos that would continue at least through the rest of my Mirror issues of July 1971.

I've thought about this a lot, and I'll be damned if I can come up with an explanation that makes any sense. Why in 1971, so long after such images were considered fit for publication, did the New York Mirror decide  that it was a good idea to revert Asbestos to this outdated offensive version? Just a note to those of you reading this who are too young to know the world of 1971 -- no, such imagery was NOT considered okay This was the era of Wee Pals, Quincy and Friday Foster, not Old Black Joe for goodness sake.

Unfortunately, the 1971 version of the New York Mirror has not been digitized as far as I know, so I have no way to find out if there was any sort of reader backlash.  I do know that the strip ran there until December 1971, so the ghost creator and his comic strip obviously did not get summarily kicked out of the paper. This is one of those 'WTF' discoveries that may never be answered, but it sure is weird. And pretty sad, too.









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Comments:
According to a 1966 Ebony article about
the portrayal of Blacks in The Funnies
http://preview.tinyurl.com/jtb72sj
The Asbestos transformation happened in 1963.
 
Weird. Maybe the 1971 minstrel-looking versions were reruns? Or lazy redrawings of old strips?
 
Long long ago read a piece somewhere, sadly unillustrated, about comics created by black artists for newspapers serving black readers. One was a humor strip about an affable loser. With the advent of WWII the hero was somehow transformed into a super soldier and had serious adventures, some of them fantasies that commented on race and racism. After the war the artist abruptly turned him back into a comical schlepI, dismissing the heroic wartime adventures as a dream. Ring a bell?
 
Sounds like Bunglrton Green by Jay Jackson among others.
 
Bungleton Green
 
Hello Allan-

"Joe and Asbestos" was originally a strip called "Joe Quince" for the Bell syndicate. Joe was more or less, a tall Barney Google. Asbestos joined him as his valet/jockey/flunky early on, and was apparently so well recieved that he managed second billing. Some papers were calling it Joe & Asbestos as early as 1926. It was a regular strip, the tout tips componant came later, I'm pretty sure by 1927. Another strip that DID have the tips of the time was "Moe & Joe they get the dough" drawn by Bob Dunn for the minor league Hearst syndicate "Star Company". I wonder if it maybe came first and "inspired" Kling.
I don't know if there was much licensing, I've seen them used to dress up real tout sheets,probably illegally, from that era. Joe and Asbestos were in a few late 1930s Vitaphone shorts with titles like "Under The Wire" and Boarder Trouble" I don't know who the stars were.
I remember seeing J&A in the 1950s in the Boston Daily Record, and they had been reduced to just a two column headstone with their faces on opposite sides of the title, and a straight rundown of just tips went below.
It would seem these really late ones are all, in fact recycled. Sure remember the gags beings so. That first one was one of Kling's favorites.
I think there was an earlier break in the series. The man that drew the examples presented today was Paul Frehm.
Kling died on 3 May 1970.
I once asked my Grandfather, who was a regular turf supporter in those days, if there was any possible substance to the race suggestions J&A offered and he thought one would have to be stupid or childish to even look at them.

 
DD -- Thanks very much for pinpointing Asbestos' transformation.

DBenson -- prior posters are correct, it is Bungleton Green, which ran in the Chicago Defender.

Mark -- various comments: the horse-racing tips began earlier than I too expected, they are actually seen in 1924.

Kling had his own 'tout sheet' (or it was licensed by him), so that's probably where you saw the duo featured.

J&A were indeed also used as mere 'headtones' in some cases by the 40s, but my impression is that is a separate syndicate offering, a tip column. Given my lack of source materials from the late 40s on, though, maybe there were no strips or they took vacations?

Finally, is your Paul Frehm ID based on art style or some other info?
 
Hello Allan-
Sorry, I meant WALTER Frehm. I have an article in SUBURBIA TODAY (19 July 1981) that gives a bio of him, stating that he did J&A "After the war" among his many freelance gigs. If you look at the style of the two strips, especially the second, wouldn't say that looks like it could be Frehm's later work?
According to Daily Variety (10 December 1924), The strip stopped running tips in the racing off-season, causing precipitous drops in circulation for papers like the Evening World that ran it, and a large increase for papers like the Baltimore Sun when the season reopened. This would probably reflect that cities like NY and Baltimore are in areas heavily populated by race tracks.
Yes, Kling did have a racing publication, but there were others, actually a kind of motif in the tout sheet world was J&A, or fake,nameless close lookalikes would adorn them.
 
Obliged to all. Found a nice bio of Jay Jackson that include several strips, including the one where superman Bun is converted back to schlep Bungleton, after a guy with a sci-fi weapon promises to turn him into a pathetic comic strip character. In those days when such irony and meta-references were rare in comic strips, one can only wonder how fans reacted.
 
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